We feel the train engage the cogs as it rattles its way up the steep incline. Outside the wide windows, we pass rocky canyons, pine-covered mountain slopes and wildflower-covered meadows. My wife and I are comfortable and warm but outside the snowy white peaks are wrapped with cloud.
The train crawls through tunnels and across high bridges then pulls into a station. This is the end of the line. We have arrived in Zermatt.
The Swiss mountain village of Zermatt is one of the great ski and climbing centres of the world. Nestled in a deep valley enclosed between steeply scarped mountains, it is dominated by the dramatic, gracefully curved pyramid of the 4478 metre-high Matterhorn.
I first ‘discovered‘ Zermatt 40 years ago and declared it one of my favourite places in the world. I have been reluctant to go back and must say that I am initially disappointed in what I see. I want Zermatt to be the same as it was but, of course, it is not.
The village has grown enormously, the colourful horse and carts have been replaced by electric vehicles and there is construction going on everywhere. However, from the moment we step off the train and catch sight of the cobbled streets, the cute chalets and the towering mountains, we know we are in a special place.
The main street bustles happily with pedestrians but we delight in exploring some of the tiny (and romantic) cobbled alleyways off to the side, where we find ancient sun browned barns and traditional chalets.
There are cosy restaurants everywhere and menus with prices are normally posted outside. Despite Zermatt’s popularity, despite its growth, it is still only a village, open and friendly, where people from around the world seem to mix happily in the streets, restaurants and bars.
With over 13,000 visitor beds, this is very much a tourist town. It is here because of the mountains. The Matterhorn, standing alone at the head of the valley is overwhelming but Zermatt is encircled by a famous ring of mountains over 4000 metres high.
Zermatt is renowned as one of the best ski resorts in the European Alps and is the favoured place to ski by many skiers who come here from all over the world.
There are mountain railways and cable cars to take you up into the high wilderness in summer then you can ramble back down to the village. Along the way, you will find numerous mountain restaurants where you can sip a cold drink or a hearty lunch and enjoy the spectacular views of the Matterhorn.
A highlight for just about everyone is the Gornergrat, a cog railway that winds its way up the mountain to an altitude of 3089 metres. It provides magnificent panoramas along the way.
Another is Glacier Paradise / Klein Matterhorn, the highest place in Switzerland (3883 m) able to be reached by a cableway, with a viewing platform and the highest glacier palace in the world.
You arrive at the glacier by lift directly from the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise station. You then walk into the palace through an ice tunnel that is almost fifteen metres below the surface of the glacier. Adventurers and daredevils can return by walking through a glacier crevasse. Both the railway and the cable car leave from Zermatt village.
Summer visitors can explore Gorner Gorge where a footpath across narrow bridges takes visitors through the deeply scarped gorge. Also in summer you can mountain-bike ride over gravel and stones, through larch and Swiss pine forests, on single trails all with a magnificent mountain backdrop. Each trail covers an average of 1,000 metres of altitude.
The best accommodation in Zermatt is probably the Mont Cervin Palace. It is in the heart of the village and stands out with its attractive south-façade and roof with numerous turrets. The hotel’s red horse-drawn carriage is an ever popular photo.
There is excellent cuisine at the restaurant-dining room, Grill Le Cervin, and the hotel has a large indoor swimming pool and an outdoor pool, sauna, and large patio. Expect to pay €600/night.
We stayed at Tasch about seven kilometres away where we could drive the car right to the hotel. We then took the Zermatt Shuttle train to Zermatt for the day. This worked well and good accommodation was only €100/night.
If we had more time we would have taken the Glacier Express from Zermatt to St.Moritz. We saw the train with its panoramic windows and silver service meals and were suitably impressed.
It is an eight-hour trip through untouched mountain landscapes, glamorous health resorts, deep gorges, delightful valleys, 91 tunnels and across 291 impressive bridges. Prices start from around €150.
IF YOU GO
Zermatt is ‘auto-free’ to prevent air pollution so you can’t drive into the village, but you can get here by cog railway train or taxi from the nearby village of Täsch, (7kms away). Trains also depart for Zermatt from further down the valley at Visp and Brig.
South African nationals require a Schengen visa to enter Switzerland.
There are flights from South Africa and the United Kingdom to Zurich in Switzerland then you can travel by train to Zermatt.